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Interview with Alison Davies, Head of Digital at Skipton Building Society

Mark Lusted
Reading Time:
12 minutes

Skipton holds the place as the UK’s fourth largest building society with over one million members and a nationwide network of 88 branches. I saw Alison speak at a Building Societies Association Digital Mutual event 18 months ago talking about the digital transformation journey she had led Skipton through over the past six and a half years. It struck me that Skipton’s results were an inspiring example of an incumbent adapting and adopting new ways of working and new technology to deliver better customer outcomes and impressive business results.

I was delighted to have the opportunity to discuss their journey in more detail with Alison, in particular some valuable insights that other incumbents could learn from.

Hi, Alison. Could we start by you giving me a bit of background about yourself, and how you really started that journey at Skipton?

My background is in financial services for the last 27 years. 21 of them were in First Direct and HSBC and the latter 15 all in Digital. I have held senior posts, I sat on the board at First Direct as Head of Digital and then went to HSBC in a Senior digital role initially in the UK and then working globally. So I came to Skipton with a lot of experience to do the job in hand, which was to build a new digital function for Skipton Building Society and create a Centre of Excellence. There was some digital work ongoing which was then integrated into the new function. So that was 5 and a half years ago, and we've been on a very interesting journey since.

So I guess coming from a large organisation like HSBC, a big global cooperation, through to Skipton which is a bit of a smaller organisation, was there a big shift in terms of culture, budgets and digital maturity?

Yes . We’re not a bank and therefore we don't have the same requirements as a bank. We are a mutual and our DNA is centered around building a better society. So therefore the culture of Skipton continues to be exceptional which was hugely advantageous as we embarked on a new Digital journey. It definitely wasn't a revolution, we already had some work in progress but it needed to be upgraded and built on and I was fortunate to have the backing of the Senior Executive team and continue to have their support. Injecting digital into a well established financial services establishment with a strong legacy, had it’s challenges but with great people and a willingness to progress we have definitely embraced digital.

So from a customer experience point of view, if you look back six years ago, what was it like then and how does it contrast to now?

It was a flat basic website, both secure and non-secure. It needed attention as whilst it served a purpose, there was tons of opportunity What we've done together is we've built on the customer experience and we've injected some soul, feeling and personalisation into the online channels and I’m delighted, with much involvement from many, we are heading in the right direction. We’ve come a long way in 6 years.

A lot of the time our starting point with incumbents in the space is a series of platforms that serve a purpose and functionally work (broker portals, customer portals etc) but they're not really at the next level in terms of user experience. One thing we often help with is methodologies and techniques to really understand their users more and really put the user at the centre of it. How do your team go about gathering feedback from users and validating ideas?

We've got an excellent customer insight function at Skipton. Within Digital we have an experienced UX team whch has been built up over the years and we also work with external third parties on occassions. Marketing play a significant role in the success of Digital and we work as one to aid engagement and improve acquisition.

So you do lab testing and guerilla testing?

Yes we do much to ensure we align solutions to customer needs and requirements

And in terms of your methodology, I speak to a lot of companies and some of them pay lip service to agile methodologies but are really not quite there yet. Have you adopted agile internally?

The whole organisation is on the cusp of going fully agile. On the 1st March we are launching our agile programme and it’s a very exciting future.

Sometimes our other clients say that in terms of the digital unit or the marketing or IT, they've really started to embrace agile, but if the other parts of the business aren’t also on that journey, then you hit a structural roadblock, especially if your system vendors aren't working that way.

That’s very true. We are looking forward to the difference a new way of working will make to Skipton and will evolve this change journey bringing others involved along with us.

Sounds good. In terms of your tech stack can you talk at all about that? Do you use industry standard core systems? Or have you built your own technology internally?

We’re a .Net and Microsoft shop and we have a core system called Jade which we own so it’s quite unique. Then we have an API layer as well, so it’s pretty standard.

Do you have any challenges around legacy systems and how did you overcome these?

Yes, over the 5 years we have had legacy system issues. But with thousands and thousands of lines of code that will be the case just like any other organisation. But we have certainly over the last three years worked to pull some of that business logic up front and into an API middleware layer which means that we can now externalise much of our proposition to think like the Apps. But we are not about to knock it down and start again that’s for sure.

So in terms of API's, it's a hot topic in industry for obvious reasons. How do you see open banking affecting building societies? As one example?

The same way as many of our peers, it's a watching brief at the moment. I know the banks are doing a lot more but from a Building Society perspective, we've done much R&D work and we have some services that utilize open banking platforms. It's early days for many of our peers as well.

From a savings perspective, there's quite a high risk of commoditisation with the Buds of the world and others having talked about auto switching accounts based on moving to a better rate etc. Is there a risk perhaps of the USPs of building societies maybe being undermined in the future if everything becomes really commoditised and ultimately even more price driven?

It's a fair question, of course.

How do you think you would combat that?

That’s my point about a watching brief. We are starting to do work to understand the operating model, the infrastructure and the experience and will continue to do so to get us to a place where if needed to mobilise something, we’ve got learnings and some experience that will enable us to do that. Our strategy has Open Banking in it, it's just not advanced from a knowledge perspective at the moment. It’s early days.

I guess there's also a little bit of a question mark over adoption, right? There was a lot of excited talk a year or so ago and it's fair to say it's a little bit slower in terms of adoption than initially expected. So, I think that the watching brief that you're referring to makes a lot of sense. From a mortgage perspective, are you doing any work around using open banking or digital ID to speed up that initial process?

Yes we are. We are doing a lot of work with fintechs, third parties, integration and aggregators.

Do you have plans to plug in to initiatives like Twenty7Tec's Mortgage Apply, Iress Lender Connect, Mortgage Brain Lendex, things like that, the industry initiatives that are trying to create some form of mechanism of passing data between the different platforms to stop rekeying? Is that something you are engaging with?

Yes we are, that’s a big piece of work for us.

Great! So you mentioned fintechs a minute ago and obviously there's a lot of buzz and excitement around all these new startups and a lot of money being invested as well. And so, from your perspective as an incumbent, do you see this as a big threat or more partnership opportunities?

I see them as partners, I don’t see them as a big threat. Certainly I work with Fintech North and engage with them. I've had some great conversations with people who work in these organisations and it's definitely more of a mutual footing.

Looking a bit more to the future, there has also been a lot of talk around other technologies like blockchain and AI etc. I think it’s fair to say we're probably through the first phase of the hype curve where it's tapered off a bit now, and often the kind of real implementation then happens in the years after. Do you see any practical applications for blockchain and AI for building societies today and are you doing anything in the space?

Yes in our R&D function we are. We've got a robotics team, we’ve already had some great success with AI and robotics and we are now on looking at blockchain and looking at what business problems that technology can solve. That is an area focus for us.

So with AI and robotics, are you looking at them from a servicing perspective?

Yes, servicing.

That's interesting.

Thinking about your existing channels I understand Skipton has around 90 branches. If you think forward 10 years, do you think these will still be an important part of your business model? And how will they plug into your digital strategy?

Our strategy is to ensure that our branches remain at the forefront of our proposition. They are dealing with complicated advice and queries that our customers require. We've learnt that an online offering did drive activity into branches and that was the beauty of the complementing two channels there and I do see that continuing into the future, that’s certainly our intent.

We operate a digital service in all our branches and as or digital offering and technology advances I think we will be able to support our branches increasingly with complicated conversations where technology may be able to offer a resolution. So yes I believe that there is a strong role to play for digital where it meets our physical branches and the great service that they offer. The question is how can digital support that increasingly?

We noticed that Skipton had been named as one of the top 100 companies to work for in the Sunday Times for four years running; a big accolade. What do you think it is about Skipton that earned it’s a place on that list so many years in a row?

It’s people and its ethos. The culture is exceptional and the people are exceptional. The ethos and we as a company help translate that for our customers. It is a mutually supportive experience. It's a very can do attitude which is quite refreshing to be honest.

Do you have any challenges in finding the talent in your location?

Bearing in mind we are over 5 years old, it has taken us quite a long time to acquire the talent that we have in team today. Skipton is a beautiful town, but it's not very big and it's a reasonably long distance from other big towns and cities. So yes it is definitely a challenge but what I find increasingly helps is that the PR of Skipton carries a lot of weight so we find we get a lot of people knocking on our door before we are knocking on theirs, which is really helpful. So what you've just talked about is great engagement and all works in our favour. But it's definitely not easy.

So on a more personal note; you’ve achieved a lot in your career to date, holding leadership roles at some of the biggest names in finance. What do you think one of your biggest challenges has been in getting to where you are today and how have you overcome them?

One of the biggest challenges is the mindset of others and aligning a ‘can do’ attitude across the organisations that I’ve worked for. For me personally it's about being brave, committed and passionate about what you're doing and always always putting the customer first. And that’s certainly what we've done at Skipton as shown by our amazing customer satisfaction scores now. I think as well budgets, making sure you've got the right business cases in place and getting the investment you need and ensuring robust metrics to measure success This has been an ongoing focus. And finally, surround yourself with the right people. I always say I am only as good as the people I work with, so I personally try and surround myself with the best.

Great, thank you for your time!

Mark Lusted
Mark Lusted
Mark founded Dock9 in 2008. His mission is to help financial service companies create digital products and services that give them a competitive advantage in an increasingly crowded market.
He shapes Dock9's strategic approach to clients, and is actively involved with senior client stakeholders in project planning and strategy phases. He is also focused on understanding the emerging and future technology developments that offer competitive threats and opportunities for incumbent financial services clients.
Having previously been included in the BIMA list of the top 100 most influential people in UK digital (the BIMA Hot 100) he is also a regular speaker at Fintech events on the subjects of financial technology, user experience (UX) and emerging technology trends.